Jewish Resistance: Yom Hashoah 2017 Honors Upstanders on Holocaust Remembrance Day

On Sunday, April 23, the Dallas community came together at Temple Emanu-El to remember the six million Jews murdered during the Holocaust and to honor those who survived.

The theme of Yom Hashoah 2017 was Jewish resistance. On Holocaust Remembrance Day, music, testimonies, and prayers were used to reinforce the message that Jewish resistance in the Holocaust must be remembered and honored in today’s time.

“We are here tonight in a society stricken with amnesia to remember,” began Rabbi David Stern, addressing a crowd of over 500 individuals in the Stern Chapel. “We are here tonight in a world which too often turns a deaf ear to the cry of the oppressed to listen. We are here in a culture which makes it easy to harden our hearts to the suffering of others, to open our hearts to their struggles. We are here to affirm that ‘never again’ means ‘never again’ to us, ‘never again’ to anyone.”

The powerful words “Never Again” are a reminder to all that the tragedy of the Holocaust must not happen again. However, these words have recently lost some of their effects as evidenced by the rise in hate speech and antisemitism across the nation, including Texas. When being a bystander to hatred seems like an easy path, we must stand up and remember those who resisted and fought for others in the face of unspeakable horrors and death.

Holocaust survivors sat in the first rows at the commemoration. Their strength and unrelenting faith serve as evidence to what humans can endure and overcome with enough hope and courage.

“Resistance of any kind during the Holocaust required great courage,” said Museum President and CEO Mary Pat Higgins. “Today we remember and marvel at Jewish resistance during the Holocaust, the armed resistance in ghettos and death camps across Poland most notably the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and the Sonderkommando uprisings in the death camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka and Sobibor.”

The Jews had everything taken away from them by the Nazis and their oppressors. Without family, food, weapons, or freedom, many refused to be completely dehumanized and stood up for themselves and others by participating in resistance activities.

To further speak on the theme of Jewish resistance, the testimonies of three Holocaust survivors who fought against Nazi oppression were read aloud by their respective children.

Mark Jacobs read the testimony of his father Mike Jacobs; Julie Meetal Berman read the testimony of her father Les Mittelman; Marsha Gaswirth read the testimony of her father Leon Bakst.

Following each testimony, a member of the Israeli Scouts joined a speaker to light two of the six white candles used to signify the six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust.

The Honorable Florence Donald Shapiro, the Museum’s Chairman of the Board, ended the evening with a powerful message to all in attendance.

“The education the school students receive in the Museum, and how we honor our survivors, their lost loved ones, and the victims of the Holocaust, is through these stories, through this education. This is how we honor the children of the Holocaust: by educating the children of today. In the year 2017, this is how we continue our resistance.”

– Janet Montealvo Hitt, Marketing Coordinator, Dallas Holocaust Museum/Center for Education and Tolerance

At Yom Hashoah 2014, the Power and Passion of Memory Stirs Hearts, Souls As A City Remembers

Appearing frail but unbowed, deeply saddened but not wrecked, the Holocaust Survivors of North Texas filed into Temple Shalom for the Museum’s annual observance of Yom Hashoah, and the audience of 450 joined them to remember.

Yom Hashoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day, is the day across the globe set aside to remember the atrocities and effects of the Holocaust by honoring those who survived and solemnly remembering those who perished. The observance of Yom Hashoah is a testament to how the Holocaust changed the world.

Following the procession of local Survivors into the sanctuary, Cantor Leslie Niren of Temple Emanu-el performed a moving partisan song Shtil, Di Nakht Ez Oysgeshternt, or “Quiet, the night is starry.”

“As we recall the horrors of the Holocaust,” said Rabbi Andrew Paley of Temple Shalom in his welcome to the April 27 event, “as we remember and honor the stories of survival and survivors, of endurance and perseverance, let us not be content to merely be informed. We will remember. We shall never forget. We shall be different and we shall transform this suffering into blessing for all the world.”

Museum President and CEO Mary Pat Higgins thanked the local Survivors in attendance for their “courage, spirit and inspiration” and for serving as “a beacon of truth and moral authority.” But, she noted, “We are not free of the dangerous root of the core of the Holocaust.”

And then, in a collective affirmation of humanity’s light over its darkest side, the grandchildren of Survivors made their way to front to tell the stories of their beloved grandparents and to declare their lifelong commitment to keep their stories alive for their children and their grandchildren.

Aviva Linksman, granddaughter of Mike Jacobs; Rivae Balkin-Kliman, granddaughter of Gusta Kliman, and Augie Furst, grandson of Magie Furst, spoke first.

Tanya Johnson, granddaughter of Velvel Wolf Yonson and Leah Bedzowski Yonson; Elliott Tverye, grandson of Asye Tverye; and Lisa Hellman, granddaughter of Dahlia Hellman, completed the testimonies.

Upon concluding their stories, each grandchild ignited a symbolic torch in honor of their loved ones—and all who survived and perished the Holocaust.

Following the first three speakers and upon conclusion of the last three, musical interludes performed by two incredibly talented musicians featured works by Chopin, Kreisler and Debussey.

Playing the piano for the ceremony was Dr. Baya Kakouberi who is originally from Tbilisi, Georgia and is currently the Artistic Director of the Blue Candlelight Music Series in Dallas. Gary Levinson of St. Petersburg, Russia performed on a Stradivari violin, crafted in 1726 and courtesy of the Dallas Symphony Association. Gary is the Artistic Director of the Chamber Music Society of Fort Worth.

Steve Waldman, Museum board chair, echoed the feeling of many in attendance when he concluded the ceremony, saying,  “…Isn’t it amazing that so very few Holocaust Survivors became demoralized and turned to anger, violence and revenge? Isn’t it amazing that people who suffered long years living in the most horrific conditions and people who lived through the near total deprivation of life, reacted, after Liberation, by enthusiastically embracing life. The near-unanimous reaction of Holocaust survivors was to marry, to bear children.”

Steve reflected on the profound impact survivors have had on the community and on those in attendance. About 125 Holocaust refugees, survivors, and hidden children reside in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

“We are truly fortunate that hundreds of Holocaust survivors came to North Texas in order to live among us. We are grateful to them for contributing to making this a wonderful place to live and to raise families.” Steve ended his remarks by declaring Yom Hashoah “a day upon which the whole community can stand together and pledge: Never again. Not here. Not anywhere.”

Cantor Leslie Niren returned to perform El Maleh Rachamim, or “Merciful G_d.” Rabbi Paley led the Kaddish, or “The Mourner’s Prayer,” which marked the formal end of the ceremony.

A beautifully designed Book of Remembrance produced by the Museum was a treasured keepsake of the evening—a book dedicated to the victims of the Holocaust with pages filled with messages of love and remembrance from families of victims and survivors.

As the audience filed out of the sanctuary, the powerful words spoken earlier in the evening by Rabbi Paley seemed to silently echo throughout Temple Shalom—a takeaway message for this and future remembrances.

“Memory is a powerful tool,” Rabbi Paley said. “Memory has the power to educate – to transmit facts and events from one generation to another.  Memory has the power to inspire – to provide a measure of hope and possibility against the overwhelming odds of darkness and despair.  But, perhaps most importantly, memory has the power to transform – to take that which was, and provide meaning and relevance for those that come after, to be different, to be better, to be stronger, to be more courageous and to, hopefully, be more God-like.”

–Chris Kelley, for the Dallas Holocaust Museum/Center for Education and Tolerance

At Yom Hashoah 2013, Memories from the Heart Shared, Celebrated, Experienced

A boy.
A blanket.
A tattoo.
A brickyard.
A teacher.
A pledge.

Each is a symbol of the Holocaust, each remembered and recited at the Yom
Hashoah 2013 service of remembrance at Dallas’ Congregation Shearith Israel
on April 7, sponsored by the Dallas Holocaust Museum/Center for Education and
Tolerance.

“This is our memorial day…of unimaginable suffering,” said Mary Pat Higgins,
President and CEO of the Museum, in introductory remarks that followed the
procession of Holocaust Survivors, words of welcome by Rabbi William Gershon of
Shearith Israel and songs by Cantor Itzhak Zhrebker.

Five families spoke of their loved ones’ experience during the Holocaust—each
family suffered tremendous loss—while a sixth group promised to never let those
memories fade.

After each family spoke, they lit a symbolic torch—six in all were lit, symbolizing the
six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust. Inaugurated in 1953, Yom Hashoah
is also known as Holocaust Remembrance Day.

The boy is now in his late 80s, Leon Bakst. At age 15, Leon fought against the Nazis
with legendary partisan Tuvia Bielski, whose story was depicted in the Paramount
movie, Defiance (2008). Leon is the only Bielski Partisan living in Dallas, and of only
a handful of Jewish Partisans still living. Leon’s story is told in the documentary, The
Reunion (2011). Stacey Gaswirth spoke lovingly of her grandfather’s devotion to
family, friends and country. He was at her side.

On May 15, 1945, life began again for her mother (of Blessed Memory), Michelle
Mantel Bassichis said. It was the day she was liberated from Auschwitz by Allied
forces, Michelle told the 550 people in attendance at the Yom Hashoah service. “I
still have the blanket the soldiers put around my mother when they came to liberate
the camp,” said Michelle.

Mike Jacobs was 14 when the Nazis invaded his small Polish town in 1939. Two
months later, he and his family were packed into a boxcar with 100 other local
Jewish residents and taken to a Jewish ghetto. On his arm SS guards tattooed the
number “B4990.” But their father, sons Mark and Reuben said, would not be defined
by a tattoo. “…in my mind, I was still a free person,” Mike Jacobs, who was in
attendance in the audience, would say years later.

In April, 1943, Israel Prengler (of Blessed Memory), along with other Jews living in
Ludof, Poland, were rounded up for deportation by the Nazis. But her grandfather
and several other family members escaped to a brickyard where they were hidden
for seven weeks by a Catholic Polish family, said Lisa Ido. From the brickyard, they
moved to a farm run by a German woman who hid the family and other Jews until
liberation on July 27, 1944. Later, her family brought the Polish family who hid them
to Dallas, “so they could have a better life. To know what it means to be free.”

When her father (of Blessed Memory), along with other family members, were
deported to Auschwitz, a miracle occurred at the front gate, said Bina Frishman
Domb. A teacher from her father’s school stationed at the gate to document entrants
recognized him, quickly changed her father’s identity on paper to that of a non-
Jew, and saved his life in an instant. Her mother (of Blessed Memory) was also a
Holocaust survivor and like her father, shared their stories. “We promise to never
forget,” Bina said.

The last group to light a torch made a pledge—believed to be the first of its kind at
a Yom Hashoah ceremony. Melissa Rubenstein Gendason, Director of the Southwest
Region of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, stood next to her colleagues at
the Dallas Holocaust Museum/Center for Education and Tolerance. Working as
collaborators and partners, the professional staff of the two Museums pledged “to
keep the eternal flame of memory burning brightly.”

-Chris Kelley